Once upon a time, the Washington Nationals bullpen couldn’t be trusted to hold a lead. Now it is revamped and heading into 2020 full of promise.
As all Washington Nationals fans know all to well is the bullpen last year was absolutely atrocious. They finished last in ERA with a 5.66, behind even the Baltimore Orioles. Yes the same Orioles whose pitchers set a record for most home runs allowed in a season. Luckily for Nationals fans, manager Dave Martinez found the perfect way to manage the bullpen in the playoffs that allowed for us to cycle through the same three guys and to use the starters in relief as well.
Fast forward to the off-season and arguably the Nationals best reliever in Daniel Hudson was a free agent, as well as journey man Fernando Rodney. This left closer Sean Doolittle and flame thrower Tanner Rainey to man the relief corps with the inconsistent Wander Suero, as well as last years trade acquisitions in Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elias. Once again the Nationals bullpen looked like it was going to be a mess.
Instead Mike Rizzo made some spectacular moves that saw him sign Will Harris and re-sign Daniel Hudson. Nationals fans should be familiar with Harris as he gave up the go ahead home run to Howie Kendrick in game seven of the World Series. Despite that blemish, Harris has been lights out and will add security to the back end of the bullpen. Nationals fans may have forgotten that before giving up a homer in both games six and seven, he had yet to give up a run in the World Series. In fact, Harris had gone 3 1/3 innings allowing no base runners and striking out four. In the regular season, Harris was 4-1, with a 1.50 ERA, and 62 strikeouts. Harris should slide in as the set up man to Doolittle.
Hudson had a career year after being traded to D.C. at the trade deadline. With the Toronto Blue Jays he posted a 3.00 ERA in 48 innings. But once Hudson arrived in D.C., he rose to another level. In 25 innings, the veteran went 3-0, with a 1.44 ERA, 23 strikeouts, and went 6/8 in save opportunities. When Doolittle was placed on the IL, Hudson kept the bullpen afloat as he became nearly un-hittable. Hudson continued to be lights out in the playoffs and he even recorded the last out of the world series when he struck out Michael Brantley. Now Hudson has a career ERA of a 3.82, so expect him to regress. It will be highly unlikely he will be able to replicate his 2019 success. But Hudson will still be a reliable reliever in the bullpen and will add an extra option to close when Doolittle needs a night off.
A big reason the Nationals bullpen struggled last year was because the always sturdy Sean Doolittle was over worked. He was being called on to attempt multi inning saves and his body wore down over time. In the first half of the season Doolittle went 6-2, with a 3.16 ERA, 44 strikeouts and was 19/23 in save opportunities. Unfortunately Doolittle’s work load caught up with him in the second half of the season. After the All Star break he went 0-3, with a 5.56 ERA, 22 strikeouts, and was 10-12 in save opportunities. In total, Doolittle pitched in 63 games, the most since he appeared in 70 games in 2013. But now that reinforcements have arrived, Doolittle should be receiving extra rest. Expect Doolittle to pitch more like his first half self.
Washington’s bullpen gained stability over the course of 72 hours. Now Sean Doolittle won’t have to be overworked as Martinez can mix and match between Hudson, Doolittle, and Harris. Roenis Elias also has some closer experience and can come in and give someone the night off. While some regression is expected, this will be the best back end of the bullpen the Nats have had since 2017, when the team was relying on Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Doolittle.
While the back end of the bullpen should be stable, the middle innings will need to be figured out. Tanner Rainey will be the first reliever out of the pen before the seventh inning. Last year in his first full season in the majors, he went 2-3, with a 3.91 ERA, and 74 strikeouts. Rainey is known for striking out opposing batters and this was shown from his 13.78 K/9. Unfortunately he suffers from control issues from time to time and had a K/BB ratio of 1.95. Another year in the big leagues should allow Rainey to work on his control. After him, the bullpen has some questions. Wander Suero, also suffers from consistency and his splits support this. In the first half, Suero had a 5.30 ERA, while he had a 3.71 ERA after the All Star break. He will need to prove he can put together a full consistent season.
The trade acquisitions of Strickland and Elias should both bounce back as they both suffered injuries in 2019. Hunter Strickland had a 5.14 ERA in 21 innings for the Nats. He has a career ERA of 3.16 and baring any injuries, should look like his past self. Elias suffered a hamstring injury shortly after arriving in D.C. The injury seemed to linger even after he was activated from the IL. He only appeared in four games for the Nats due to his multiple stints on the IL. which led to him posting a 9.00 ERA. Elias has closer experience, but will need to prove he is healthy and that his hamstring won’t set him back. Strickland, Suero, and Elias are all wild cards that can either put the bullpen over the top, or force Dave Martinez to rely heavily on the back end of his bullpen. On paper the Nationals bullpen looks much improved, but only time will tell.